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Playing in the sandpit: finding fresh ideas for immunology research

Cancer Research UK and Arthritis Research UK are inviting applications to a new funding scheme – the Immunology Innovation Award – which aims to catalyse new multidisciplinary collaborations across disease areas. In this guest blog, they tell us more about the innovative design of this scheme and how you can get involved.


It’s a scientific truism that one of the best ways to have new and innovative ideas is by talking to other people – it’s the way that research has worked for centuries.

At Cancer Research UK (CRUK), we’re committed to helping our scientists make the connections that will stimulate their thinking. We’ve launched a new partnership with Arthritis Research UK to maximise progress in our shared strategic priorities spanning cancer, arthritis and related musculoskeletal (MSK) disorders.

Together we’ve identified common challenges across immunology, early detection, precision medicine and the microbiome. We believe that by working together in these areas to share knowledge, build communities, and co-fund relevant research, we can make significant progress in both disease areas.

Our first collaborative endeavour is to host a joint sandpit workshop on the theme of immune homeostasis.

Driving progress in immunology

Advances in immunology, and in particular immunotherapies, are bringing benefits to significant numbers of people with cancer and those with MSK disorders. However, there are still challenges to address. A recent study from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine showed that a small number of patients receiving immune checkpoint inhibitors for cancer went on to develop rheumatological symptoms. While it may not be surprising that a drug, which acts to boost the immune system, can lead to the development of autoimmunity, it is a potentially important consequence that we should take notice of.

“Chronic inflammatory processes affect the development and treatment of both cancer and MSK disorders, but these two communities are not connecting as they should be. By bringing these communities together we hope to spark novel insights in to some of our most common shared challenges and create long-lasting collaborations”

Dr Kristina Tubby, Cancer Research UK

Sandpits: Embedding a collaborative mindset

We’re using a sandpit workshop as a unique approach to funding, and as a mechanism to bring together the cancer and MSK communities, along with other scientists and individuals from a diverse range of backgrounds and sectors.

Sandpits are an intensive and exciting process; the workshops run over three days, where participants explore a research challenge, build new collaborations and think outside-the-box to develop a pitch for innovative research projects that wouldn’t get funding through traditional mechanisms. On the final day the best ideas are recommended for seed funding support.

“Sandpit workshops could work for all kinds of science. If you want to come up with new ideas you need the headspace, and you rarely get that at work where you’re constantly attending meetings and being bombarded with emails. Everyone could benefit from this kind of workshop – you see people getting really excited about ideas, and it’s great to be able to access fast-track funding to make the ideas into reality.”

Abi Fisher, previous workshop attendee

Funded project teams will have 12 months to further scope out their ideas, generate data and build the evidence they need to apply for larger-scale funding. We expect successful project teams to generate subsequent project proposals submitted to either CRUK, Arthritis Research UK or other relevant funders.

Think you might have something novel to contribute to an exciting immunology project?

We’re looking for creative, open-minded applicants from a broad variety of backgrounds and disciplines to apply to our first joint workshop. The workshop is open to senior post-docs through to established independent researchers. We welcome applications from those working in the fields of cancer and MSK diseases, immunologists, physical sciences, engineers and those working in the digital and technology space.

Immune homeostasis
Led by Professor Adrian Hayday
Application deadline: 3 May 2017
Workshop: 18–20 July 2017, Oxford
Find out more

Jessica Vasiliou, Communications & Marketing Manager, Cancer Research UK


You can find out more information about the Immunology Innovation Award on the Cancer Research UK website.

Follow Research at Cancer Research UK on Twitter: @CRUKResearch

Follow Arthritis Research UK on Twitter: @ArthritisRUK